“We all refer to the Pele World Cup in 1970, the Franz Beckenbauer one of 1974, or the Diego Maradona one of 1986. And we also talk about the 1976 European Championship of Antonin Panenka, the 1984 one of Michel Platini or the 1988 one of Marco Van Basten. I have not yet deserved that special honour,” observed Zinedine Zidane to The Independent.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that Zidane made this rather candid admission before Euro 2000, when he sporadically glimmered at the 1998 World Cup on home soil. But in fact, the assessment arrived four years later, on the eve of France’s first match at Euro 2004 against England.
“I did not always shine four years ago,” he continued. Was Zidane being falsely modest, or was there a genuine conviction that he could’ve performed better, a man so driven for perfection that he wasn’t able to appreciate how good he’d been for those three weeks in the early summer of 2000?
Earnest humility or otherwise, Euro ’00 was Zidane’s absolute apex as a footballer, producing one balletic, captivating performance after another as Les Bleus swept to victory in the Low Countries that cemented their status as the planet’s eminent side at the turn of the millennium.
Revisionist history likes to paint France ’98 as Zidane’s coming out party; his emergence as the world’s finest player. The theory is only reinforced by the fact that he somehow swept to win the Ballon d’Or that year by an outrageous margin of 176 points ahead of second-placed Davor Suker.
Zidane’s two headed goals in the final against a tepid Brazil masked what in truth was a very average tournament for the-then Juventus midfielder. He’d been sent off in the second game of the group stage for stamping on Saudi Arabia’s Fuad Anwar. A return for the quarter final against Italy saw him produce a solid-if-unspectacular performance, and was on the periphery of things in the semi final against Croatia.
Despite having the most productive season of his five-year stint with the Bianconeri in terms of statistics (11 goals and eight assists in all competitions) in 1997/98, Zidane wasn’t regarded as the side’s standout player. It wasn’t until Alessandro Del Piero’s career-changing injury against Udinese in November 1998 that Zidane became the side’s focal point.
That burden wasn’t something Zidane coped with particularly well. In the two seasons leading into Euro 2000, Zidane had been remarkably unexceptional in Italy. Injuries and a post-World Cup hangover blighted the Frenchman’s form in 1998-99. He scored only twice in 40 games (four assists) – the lowest tally of his senior career – and followed that up in 1999-00 with five goals from 41 games (0 assists) in all competitions; Zidane was in the least effective period of his entire career.
Zidane of course isn’t a player to be judged merely on numbers – his game encompassed so much more - but it was evident going into Euro ’00 that his reputation had far exceeded any genuine consistency. In Italy there had been criticism of Zidane for seemingly picking and choosing which games he’d ‘turn up’ for.
These tended to be the bigger games in Serie A, with a belief that whilst he was the man for the big occasion, he lacked the motivation for an away trip to Salernitana or Empoli. “I must say that Zidane has been more fun than useful,” quipped the legendary Juve patron Gianni Agnelli after his departure to Real Madrid in July 2001. Sour grapes perhaps, but it’s a theme that runs across Zidane’s time at both Juve and Real. A career defined by big-game moments as opposed to continual excellence.
Yet there can be no arguments, and despite his own proclamations, about Zidane’s consistency at Euro ’00. From the opening match against Denmark in Bruges, Zidane danced, pivoted, shimmied and waltzed through opposition players with the most effortless elegance; the ball always under his command.
Euro 2000 was a feast of uber-attacking football. The competition’s average goal per game ratio of 2.74 was a marked improvement from the dour Euro ’96 (2.06 goals per game) and its tactically stifling successor in 2004 (2.48).
Euro 2000 represents the best GPG ratio of the five 16-team tournaments. Furthermore, only a single knockout tie went to penalties, the lowest of any of the 16-team iterations. No. 10's such as Francesco Totti, Manuel Rui Costa and Dennis Bergkamp all flourished, with Zidane standing atop the mercurial mountain.
It’s hardly a coincidence that France lost their only game of the tournament when Zidane was rested, with qualification already secured, for the final group game against Holland. In the space of three days Zidane produced two of the greatest performances ever witnessed in a European Championship, majestically taking apart both Spain and Portugal. The Iberian cousins, who’d contributed majorly to the exhilarating nature of the tournament, failed to put a glove on Zidane in 210 minutes of football. At times the 28-year-old seemed to be playing a different sport; an artist operating on a rarefied plane to every other player at the competition.
The free kick against Spain in the quarter final remains the last set piece scored in the knockout rounds. Zidane perhaps left his finest performance for the Portuguese in the final four; he tormented Portugal’s ‘Golden Generation’ for 120 minutes, showcasing his endless repertoire of tricks: step-overs, drag-backs, Marseille roulettes, back-heels, feints and his seemingly endless love of dragging his studs over the ball.
The piece de resistance arrived when he controlled Emmanuel Petit’s long diagonal ball with his chest whilst simultaneously running and contorting his body as the ball dropped to the floor, instantly angling himself on the periphery of the Portuguese box in order to cross the ball for Sylvain Wiltord. This outrageously fluid, 10-second sequence of genius has become compulsory inclusion for every highlight reel of Zidane ever since.
In contrast to France ’98, Zidane’s quietest outing was arguably left for the final. However he still made his presence felt – the overriding fear of Zidane meant at times he was double marked by the Italians – and kept France ticking over as they desperately tried to overturn Marco Delvecchio’s early second half strike.
Despite not playing an integral role in either of France’s two goals in the final, UEFA officials were in no doubt as to who illuminated the tournament best, and awarded Zidane with the player of the competition. In retrospect, it’s astounding that he didn’t win the 2000 Ballon d’Or. Zidane finished second on the podium, behind soon-to-be Real teammate Luis Figo. The decision will go down as one of the more controversial choices made by Europe’s premier journalists.
No player has dominated a European Championship since Zidane, who for three glorious weeks 20 years ago, mixed style and substance to cement his status as one of the greatest midfielders to play the game.